Mad Men brings in change, not death

The sixth season of Mad Men started last night, like this: Don Draper (played brilliantly, as always, by Jon Hamm) lies back on a deckchair and takes in the pages of Dante Alighieri's Inferno - an epic poem that relates Dante's traversal of the nine levels of hell - while on a sunny holiday with Megan in Hawaii. Given how much of the remainder of the episode deals with death, it's easy to see how one might view the opening scene as tying into that morbid theme.

(Warning: Spoilers from last night's feature-length premiere of Mad Men follow.)

Yet, by the end of the episode, we come to understand that opening scene differently: in the final moments of the double episode, we find that Don is having an affair with his neighbour's wife Sylvia (played by Linda Cardellini), the rightful owner of the copy of Dante's Inferno. Don tells Sylvia that it made him think of her. And when she asks what he'd like for the new year, Don replies glumly that he'd "like to not do this anymore".

So, I submit to you that - in spite of the fact that most are thinking about death in relation to the characters we love - the real fear at the centre of the show, at least at the start of this sixth season, is not fear of death but fear of change.

Obviously change is a constant on a show like Mad Men, which takes place over the course of the 1960s - a time of big change in society itself. But doesn't it seem like there has been more change than usual on this show? Especially when you consider that the time jump between seasons - we pick up this episode at the end of 1967, only around eight months after the events of the season five finale - is actually much less than in seasons past.

There are small changes evident already: Sally (Kiernan Shipka) is now referring to her mother (January Jones, wearing less prosthetic padding than last year) as "Betty", Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) has grown sideburns, Stan (Jay Ferguson) and Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) are disheveled and smoking reefer around the office, and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) adopting a much more assertive, ruthless, and Draper-esque demeanour in dealing with both employees and clients.

But there are signs already of big changes on the horizon. And while the show references death multiple times over the course of these first two episodes, it's in the context of change (or escape) rather than finality.

For example, Don takes a work trip to Hawaii with Megan, and he spends the first few minutes of the show not saying a word. In fact, he doesn't say anything to anyone until he meets a drunken PFC Dinkins in the hotel bar and reluctantly agrees to take part in a wedding*.

Yet his biggest take away from that trip is the experience, the feeling of true escape; when he pitches the Sheraton people, he presents a poetic idea of a man stripping off his clothes and wandering into the ocean, the idea of using the trip to Hawaii as a jumping off point. The idea is shot down due to the connotation of death**, but that isn't how Don sees the idea at all. He views it as representing escape, as representing change.

As we so often see in the pitches, Don is actually sharing his own thinking. You get the sense he would like nothing more than to go somewhere, shed the life he has, and move on to something else. Sure, he views death as change too - he even asks doorman Jonesy, who had a near-death experience at the start of the episode, if the light at the end of the tunnel was like "hot tropical sunshine? Did you hear the ocean?"

Change is on the horizon for Roger (how has John Slattery never won an Emmy for this role?), too. In fact, death and finality doesn't seem to faze him - his mother dies, and the receptionist is more upset than he is. But when a death hits a little closer and forces change upon him, like when shoe shiner Giorgio passes, he breaks down.

Roger's speech early on implies that he doesn't think change is possible and that death is inevitable - "Look, life is supposed to be a path, and you go along, and these things happen to you, and they're supposed to change, you, change your direction. But it turns out that's not true. Turns out the experiences are nothing. They're just some pennies you pick up off the floor, stick in your pocket. You're just going in a straight line to You Know Where." - but change is possible, and now that change (spending more time with his daughter, shining his own shoes) is being pushed on him.

1968 is a year of upheaval and societal change in America; heck, we end the episode on January 1, 1968, and in the space of just over three months the battle of Khe Sanh will take place, the Tet Offensive starts and ends, the civil rights movement steps up after the Orangeburg massacre, and Martin Luther King Jr will be shot dead***.

1968 looks set to be a year of upheaval and change for Don, Roger, and everyone else, too. And I can't wait.

Did you watch the first episode of Mad Men's sixth season? What did you think? What did you take away from the episode?

(*) In case you're wondering why Don reacts so badly to finding that he has PFC Dinkins' lighter in his pocket, I think it's because the lighter he lost - that Dinkins presumably has in his pocket - is a memento from Don's real past as Dick Whitman, as it was the one he dropped that set off the blaze that killed the real Don.

(**) I love the end of the pitch scene: Don looks at Stan and exasperatedly asks "Did that make you think of suicide?", to which Stan chuckles and replies "Of course! That's what's so great about it!"

(***) President Lyndon B Johnson will also announce that all government computers use ASCII encoding ... but somehow I don't think that'll make it into the show.

Make sure you like On the Box on Facebook and add Chris on Twitter.
Or, feel free to
 email Chris with any questions or ideas.
This is a spoiler-free blog - please comment responsibly.